Thursday, July 10, 2008

Steppenwolf-Slow Flux

I'd venture to guess that for folks of my age and consumer profile, the initial exposure to Steppenwolf came from Heavy Metal glossy mags or compilations, extolling the band for their early utterance "Heavy Metal Thunder!". My first encounter with their sound came from their inclusion on an early 1980's Metal comp LP, Metal Battle . Included among tunes by then-current rockers such as Praying Mantis, Ian Gillan Band, Point Blank, and Angel Witch, was Born to be Wild. The liner notes featured an early press shot of the band, and of course noted their historical precedence to the early 80's proliferation of Metal. Through the years I've always enjoyed their music, long after the enthusiasm for most Heavy Metal passed from me. Any time Magic Carpet Ride or Sookie Sookie or, yes, Born to Be Wild (dig that drum break!), come on the radio, you'd best not touch the dial if I'm in the car with you.
Slow Flux is the debut recording from Steppenwolf's middle period, recorded after a two year breakup/hiatus, in 1973. In it's outward appearance, it looks like what could be an exercise in pre-Punk pro Rock bloat. The cover image appears half-baked (what is that stuff that the logo is rising up out of?), and the band pics make them look pretty dorky. Despite the homeliness, I took a a $2.98 chance on Slow Flux several years ago. It's a decision that I'm happy to have made.
Slow Flux is a record that rocks, but you have to listen really closely for that effect. Many of the songs sound outwardly to be stylistic exercises, but if you dig into the way in which the instruments hang together, and to the attention paid to tonal details, and you'll get it. Steppenwolf use 1970's Rock forms like boogie, biker, and work ballad on Slow Flux, yet stamp them all indelibly with their signature brand of wild, raw musicality.
The keyboard is more often than not a detriment to Rock bands. It's high falutin' expanse of perfectly laid out chordal structure can very easily add too much by way of the space it can take up. Too often bands with keyboards fall into this trap. Goldy McJohn proves a rare exception to the rule on Slow Flux. He's all over the songs, yet there is never the sense that he's trying to class up the proceedings a la Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. For a fine example of this style, listen to the keyboard during the verses of Get Into the Wind, where he gets a creaky, cracked sound from his Leslie. Check out his rhythm playing during the Cabaret Voltaire-like aural cut-up on Justice Don't Be Slow as well. That's some seriously funky keyboard playing. On other tunes he colors, romps, rocks, and rolls. His restrained use of notes and keyboard tones during the proceedings is exemplary, even more so for the fact that this record was recorded in the midst of an era that rewarded excess and pretension.
Bearded Bobby Cochran takes the role of lead guitar on Slow Flux. This he does with taste and style. His riffs are always sleek, and his cutting tones provide great melodic pleasures. His soloing never sounds forced; he even manages to coax a killer solo out of the much-abused and equally abhorred talk box on Jeraboah. Forget Frampton forever!
Of course, the voice and persona of Steppenwolf is John Kay. His growl can be so emotive, so satisfying for Rock listeners to hear. His characteristic vocalizing remains on much of Slow Flux, yet on songs like Smoky Factory Blues and Justice Don't Be Slow he takes a cooler, crooning approach, comparable to the likes of Jim Morrison or Paul Rodgers. This he does with style and seeming ease. Paired with the gruffer sound of his vocals on Gang War Blues (co-written by Kim Fowley!) and Get Into the Wind, he gives a multi-dimensional and emotionally satisfying performance. It would be tough to find a lead singer in the world who wouldn't sound dorky singing "I got a straight shootin' woman", but Kay pulls even this off convincingly. Let's not forget his rhythm guitar playing either. He provides solid chording and foundational playing for Cochran's explorations, especially on Jeraboah, where his guitar grounds the spacey riffing of the keys and lead guitar.
The rhythm section of drummer Jerry Edmonton and bassist George Biondi is snaky and quick, conducting the tunes with ease and grace. This is especially true of Edmonton, who sounds like he's using a classic, small kit. The fact that he coaxes so much sound out of so little owes much to the way he syncopates, driving the rhythm with kick/snare/hat patterns that swing the songs in classic, and now sadly forgotten, Rock patterns. Would that drummers of any current genre take more cues from Jerry's exemplary beat writing! Biondi's playing is fluid, full of fast runs that never sound like show boating, but always support the treble tones of the organs and guitars. It's fine foundational playing.
Even the presence of horns on fully 1/3 of the tunes on Slow Flux can't kill it's Rock power. Arranged by Edmonton, who smartly emphasizes lower tenor and baritone registers in the arrangements, the horns add drive and color, and never distract from the Rock rhythms and melodies.
Thirty five years on, Slow Flux holds up surprisingly well. It's clean production and utterly skilled playing assure it's immanent quality. The tones contained on it fit together like fine masonry or woodwork, allowing the perceptions to marvel at the interlocking grace of their forms. It's sounds are carved into tape, rising above the forms from which they spring, proudly shouting out the Wolf calls. Slow Flux is timeless Rock.


5 comments:

Michael said...

Great piece! I recently bought a copy of Kay's "Magic Carpet Ride" autobiography in hopes of learning a bit more about this band; post-For Ladies Only STEPPENWOLF is totally unknown territory for me. I can't wait to hear this record.

Disaster Amnesiac said...

I'd say listen a few time with headphones. Pay close attention the drumming. It's f'in brilliant. I'm SO sad drummers don't play that way anymore. The instrumental playing is so good, so deep.
PS-thanks for the kick in the butt! Burroughs trumped Bangs.

Michael said...

BTW: which ANGEL WITCH track was on that metal comp? I got a soft spot for their first S/T record.

Disaster Amnesiac said...

It was "you're and Angel Witch/you're an Angel Witch!"

Michael said...

A true classic!